Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 3, Issue 1;   January 1, 2003: Saying No

Saying No

by

When we have to say "no" to customers or to people in power, we're often tempted to placate with a "yes." There's a better way: learn how to say "no" in a way that moves the group toward joint problem solving.

If she had a choice, Robin would have gladly elected a root canal instead. But there she sat, with most of senior management bearing down on her. They wanted a simple "Yes, I'll make it happen." But she just couldn't say that.

Instead, she said, "I don't know how to get it done by then, and more money won't help. I'd propose instead that we find another way to meet their needs while we get this done."

Virginia  Satir's Yes No MedallionSilence, as everyone waited to see how Warner would react. He gave her that famous glare, but Robin was prepared. She stared back.

"What did you have in mind?" he asked.

Robin knew immediately that she was home free, because instead of blaming and intimidating, they were now problem-solving. She had used one of several workable techniques for Saying No to Power. There's always a risk when you try it, but a risk of upsetting Power by saying "No" now is almost always better than the certainty of upsetting them when your placating "Yes" implodes a few months from now.

To help you stay centered
as you say no,
use "I" statements
To feel good about saying no, start by feeling good about yourself. Then adding the no is a small step. When you say no, you're just stating the truth as you see it. To help you focus on this centered approach, use "I" statements as you say no. Examples:

I don't know how to do that.
If you honestly don't see how to do it, it's better to let them know now than it is to have them discover it later, after you said you could do it. Remember, your limitations are not yours alone. If you don't know how to do it, there's an excellent chance that nobody does.
I can't do that by the time we need it. Could you help me adjust some priorities?
Another way to say this one is, "Sure, I can do that, but it would have to be instead of something else that's less important." Then the two of you can negotiate priorities.
I don't know how to meet that date with the schedule we've already accepted from our supplier. Can we get those components from them any earlier?
Now the group is problem-solving a critical-path schedule issue. Perhaps someone in the room can work this issue better than you can.
I don't know how we can meet that date. What would happen if we were a week late?
This moves the discussion to a question of the target date. In most cases, a one-week delay is OK, so this is actually an exploration of the boundary of "OK."

As you practice, you'll find your own ways to say no. Coming from you, your own no is almost always safer and more powerful than someone else's yes. Go to top Top  Next issue: Toxic Projects  Next Issue

101 Tips for Managing Conflict Are you fed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you or a colleague the target of a bully? Destructive conflict can ruin organizations. But if we believe that all conflict is destructive, and that we can somehow eliminate conflict, or that conflict is an enemy of productivity, then we're in conflict with Conflict itself. Read 101 Tips for Managing Conflict to learn how to make peace with conflict and make it an organizational asset. Order Now!

For more on saying no, see "Saying No: A Tutorial for Project Managers."

For a survey of tactics for managing pressure, take a look at the series that begins with "Managing Pressure: Communications and Expectations," Point Lookout for December 13, 2006.

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More articles on Conflict Management:

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When targets of bullies decide to stand up to their bullies, to end the harassment, they frequently act before they're really ready. Here's a metaphor that explains the value of waiting for the right time to act.
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In group decision making, dissent risk is the risk that dissents about important decisions will be rejected without due consideration. As a result, group decision quality can suffer, and some groups will actually eject dissenters. How can we manage dissent risk?
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Verbal abuse at work uses written or spoken language to disparage, disadvantage, or harm others. Perpetrators favor tactics they can subsequently deny having used. Even more favored are abusive tactics that are so subtle that others don't notice them.

See also Conflict Management, Effective Communication at Work and Managing Your Boss for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A form of off road driving also known as mud boggingComing November 30: Avoiding Speed Bumps: II
Many of the difficulties we encounter when working together don't create long-term harm, but they do cause delays, confusion, and frustration. Here's Part II of a little catalog of tactics for avoiding speed bumps. Available here and by RSS on November 30.
Tuckman's stages of group developmentAnd on December 7: Reaching Agreements in Technological Contexts
Reaching consensus in technological contexts presents special challenges. Problems can arise from interactions between the technological elements of the issue at hand, and the social dynamics of the group addressing that issue. Here are three examples. Available here and by RSS on December 7.

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